GROUP -H PREVIEW
Rio de Janeiro, June 5 :
The eighth and final pool of the 2014 FIFA World Cup – Group H – will see an exciting battle among four energetic teams who are eager to make their mark in the sport’s showpiece event.
Belgium, Algeria, Russia and South Korea will give their best for the two Round of 16 spots available from the group. World No.12 Belgium are the favourites to top but there will be a tough fight between the other three for the second spot.
Belgium qualified for the World Cup in an emphatic fashion by recording a national record of seven successive wins during an unbeaten campaign. They won eight matches out of 10 and drew two to top the qualification group. The team gave a series of controlled and powerful displays throughout the qualifying, where their defence was extremely disciplined.
Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany are two players who are expected to come good for Belgium. They are abundant when it comes to attacking players and coach Marc Wilmots has made the squad a tight unit.
However, Wilmots has expressed concern that there might be a problem with a number of players like Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin De Bruyne, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini not having much playing time at club level.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard has also done well under Wilmots. A technically sound playmaker, the 23-year-old can explode at any time during a match by generating sudden pace and energy.
A renowned player during his time, Wilmots became coach two years ago with the aim of guiding Belgium to a new high and the coach accomplished it in style when the country achieved its best ranking of fifth from 54th.
Their best finish at the mega event was fourth in 1986. However, they failed to qualify in the last two editions in Germany and South Africa.
The second team in the group, Algeria, will be playing in only their fourth World Cup but it would not be wise to write them off. The African team has an outside chance of qualifying for the knockouts which, if done, will create a historic chapter in the country’s footballing history.
The Desert Warriors will hope to reach the knockouts for the first time with advanced standards. The only Arab nation present in Brazil “will cause a surprise”, says the legendary Diego Maradona while former Brazil great Rivaldo feels that “the possibilities of reaching the second round are abundant” for Algeria.
Valencia midfielder Sofiane Feghouli will be an asset if he presents his attacking best for Algeria to have any dreams of proceeding further.
World No.18 Russia will also try to leave an impact in Brazil as the next edition in 2018 will be held in their home country. The Fabio Capello-led side, who have only qualified twice for the World Cup (1994 and 2002) since the breakup of the Soviet Union, will try their best to qualify for the knock-outs for the maiden time.
The miserly back-line, predominantly from CSKA Moscow, will add to their advantage while the midfield is their key as they play fast-paced pressing football. However, the same midfield also has the tendency of being their Achilles heel.
Though former England boss Capello inherited a side that was meekly eliminated from Euro 2012, he has instilled confidence into the team and management which has been shown when the Italian’s authoritarian style has got acceptance with an extension till 2018.
Like Algeria, South Korea can also end up as the surprise package from the group. The Asian team shocked one and all when they reached the semi-finals at home in 2002. They can recollect memories from that edition through head coach Hong Myung-bo, who was captain of the Guus Hiddink coached squad in 2002.
Though the Taeguk Warriors have not been able to replicate their 2002 performance, they have managed to qualify for the next two editions and also reached the Round of 16 in South Africa.
But this time around, the World No.55 are genuine challengers for the knockouts in their eighth consecutive World Cup appearance.
Bayer Leverkusen playmaker Son Heung-min, who joined from Hamburg last summer, could also play a major role in his team’s fortunes.
Hong Myung-bo is a South Korean hero who was named by Pele in 2003 as one of the greatest 125 living footballers. He also led South Korea to a bronze medal at the London Olympics, but will he be able to deliver in South America?
The Group action begins June 17 when Belgium take on Algeria at the Estádio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte and ends June 26.